As imposing buildings, usually rather old, and almost always with rich histories, when the lights go out and the audiences leave, London’s theatres are among the spookiest places in the capital.
There’s something about an empty theatre which seems wrong. It’s unsettling to see row after row of empty seats and a shadowy stage, both waiting a little too patiently for the next show and a new audience. It can only be described as expectant, as if the stage itself knows what it is for and resents being left alone.
Of course it’s foolish to give human emotions to a room; foolish and impossible. However, it can’t be denied that an empty theatre is a spooky place indeed, whether or not your imagination credits the stage with some sort of malign self-awareness. Perhaps it is this creepiness that has led to so many stories of haunted theatres and thespian ghosts.
Since Halloween isn’t very far away, the time seems right to start investigating the West End’s spiritual side. Today I’ll be giving you a run down of ten theatre ghosts to keep an eye out for when you’re next in the capital.
1. Grimaldi the Clown, Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Joseph Grimaldi was one of the very first people to popularise the now well-known white-faced clown routine. He could reportedly coax laughter from even the most curmudgeonly audiences at will and is now considered to be the father of modern pantomime.
Sadly, Grimaldi’s life was far from perfect, as is so tragically the case with many great comedians. As the first flush of youth faded from him, the daily physical exertions of clowning began to damage his body, until he was eventually crippled completely. Fortunately, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane recognised the contribution he had made to the world of theatre and awarded him a pension of £100 a year.
The pension kept him relatively comfortable until he died at his home, the Cornwallis Tavern, in May 1837, aged 58.
It comes as little surprise that the spirit of a man whose life was steeped in performance and theatre from the age of three would linger on in a theatre. He is said to guide nervous actors to the best spots of the stage of the Theatre Royal and his disembodied head has been spotted floating around backstage more than once. The floating head becomes all the more curious when you learn that the great clown had requested that his head should be struck from his body after his death.
2. John Baldwin Buckstone, Theatre Royal Haymarket
In life, John Baldwin Buckstone was the actor-manager of London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket where he wrote and performed mainly in comedies and farces. He died in 1879. and it seems that in death, his tastes have changed little.
Buckstone supposedly appears in the theatre when it is hosting the sort of show which he may have enjoyed in life. Unlike most ghosts, Buckstone is considered to be a good omen, the productions which he visits are blessed with good fortune and a long run.
Unlike some spooks, who’ll appear to anyone and enjoy chatting with Derek Acorah, Buckstone is rather discerning. He prefers to appear in dressing rooms to people involved with the theatre, not the audience. The last person to spot Buckstone was Patrick Stewart in 2009 while he was performing Waiting for Godot, before that he had not been seen since the late 1990s.
3. William Terriss, The Adelphi Theatre
William Terriss (1847-1897) was a popular actor in Victorian London, starring in many plays but best-known for playing dashing heroes in melodramas. He was a kind and generous man, allegedly once saving a drowning child from the River Thames and often helping his friends financially, especially fellow actors. One of the people he offered guidance, support, and money to would end up taking his life in a fit of brutal jealousy.
Richard Archer Prince was a mentally unstable alcoholic but Terriss used his connections to get him small parts and would occasionally send him money through the Actor’s Benevolent Fund. As his mental state deteriorated, work dried up, and his dependence on alcohol worsened, Prince became more and more unpredictable and began to blame the infinitely more successful Terriss for his misfortune.
Eventually Prince pushed the saint-like patience of Terriss too far and he was ejected from the Vaudeville Theatre. Shortly afterwards, he stabbed Terriss who died in the arms of his lover with the final words “I’ll be back”.
If the stories are to be believed, he kept his parting promise but in death Terriss lost his friendly, easy-going nature. in 1928 a cloud of green mist attacked a young actress named June, identifying itself with Terriss’ distinctive double door knock as it vanished.
4. The Man in Grey, Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Ghost stories are all well and good, but they really come into their own when they have a blood-curdling twist, and the tale of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane’s Man in Grey certainly has one of those.
In daylight hours a strangely dressed man is occasionally seen sitting in the end seat of the fourth row of the central gangway of the upper circle of the Theatre Royal (what a mouthful). The figure is always and without fail wearing a tri-corner hat, white wig, and ruffled shirt and never sits in a different seat, ever. When he has finished staring at an empty stage he strides across the upper circle and vanishes into a brick wall.
Pretty standard stuff, yeah? Except it’s not. In the 1870s the theatre was undergoing renovations and the Man in Grey’s favourite wall was knocked through. Behind the wall, workmen were horrified to discover a tiny hidden room or alcove containing the skeleton of a young man, he was surrounded by tatters of grey cloth with a dagger jutting obscenely from his chest.
Who he was and how he got there remains a mystery to this day, but despite his apparently tragic end the Man in Grey is a friendly ghost. He appears before a successful run at the Theatre Royal, preferring to stay in his alcove if the production isn’t up to standard.
5. The Bottom Pincher, Queen’s Theatre
Not all ghosts spend their time sitting around looking melancholy or scaring people witless. Some theatre ghosts seem to be rather enjoying themselves and the Queen’s Theatre’s bottom-pinching phantom seems to be using his condition to get his rocks off.
Male employees at the theatre have long complained about the eerie feeling of being watched was they change into their work uniforms. Male cast members have experienced the same strange sensation when getting into costume. Oddly, females seldom experience any sort of strange sensations or activity at the Queen’s Theatre leading many to speculate that the invisible ghost must be a gay man.
As well as a spot of peeping, the gay ghost is also a fan of pinching the bottoms of attractive gentlemen, the cheeky devil.